Chart: Eastern Europe's incredible shrinking cities

East Europeans cities don't produce enough of these. Image: Getty.

The trend towards urbanisation means that most cities, in most of the world, are getting bigger. But for a select group in Eastern Europe, the opposite is true. This chart shows the population of Europe’s four most rapidly shrinking major cities in Europe, as a proportion of their 2001 figures:

Population change in the fastest shrinking of 250 European cities, shown as a proportion of 2001 population. Source: CityMetric Intelligence.

All of these cities are among the largest in their countries; two of them, Vilnius and Riga are capitals, of Lithuania and Latvia respectively. This makes the drop even more surprising: even in times of financial crisis, people move to big cities in search of better employment, health and education. 

So what gives? The obvious explanation is the EU, which give residents the freedom to live and work anywhere in Europe. Locals are thus more likely to move to more prosperous cities elsewhere in Europe with better employment prospects. Since Latvia joined the EU in 2004, at least 10 per cent of its population has left.

The dramatic drop in 2011, when populations in Kaunas, Riga and Vilnius fell by between 4 and 9 per cent, is likely due to the global financial crisis, which hit the Baltic States harder than the rest of Europe. In the year following December 2009, Latvia’s unemployment rate rose from 7 per cent to 22.8 per cent. (Changes to local regulations can sometimes mean that drops that have taken place over several years are recorded in one.)

In response to the corresponding drop in population, the country’s president Andris Berzins warned that the country could lose its independence if emigration doesn’t slow. Latvia’s émigrés are mostly young people who look elsewhere for university or employment. As one sign at a Latvian protest read: “Would the last student out of the airport please turn off the lights?”

Miskolc, Hungary, didn’t experience a dramatic drop in 2011: this may be a testament to its heavy industry-based economy, which was more resilient to the crash.

But it also highlights that this shift is not simply a response to changing economic circumstances: in all of these cities, the population has been shrinking for some time. Riga’s population peaked at 910,000 around the year 1980. It’s now just 640,000, and falling.

In fact, economic emigration is being compounded be a phenomenon afflicting most of Eastern Europe: a region-wide shortage of babies. Hungary has a birth rate of 1.23 children per women, the lowest in the EU. In Lithuania it’s 1.76, in Latvia 1.34; all are well below 2.1, the “replacement rate” needed to keep the population stable.

In 2013, the Hungarian authorities took the drastic step of sponsoring a series of dance parties to encourage its reproduction-shy population to find “the one” (and, more importantly, breed). Perhaps other European countries should follow their lead. 


Covid-19 is highlighting cities' unequal access to green space

In the UK, Londoners are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

As coronavirus lockdowns ease, people are flooding back to parks – but not everyone has easy access to green space in their city.

Statistics from Google show that park attendance in countries across the globe has shot up as people have been allowed to move around their cities again.

This is especially true in urban areas, where densely populated neighbourhoods limit the size of private green space – meaning residents have to go to the park to get in touch with nature. Readers from England can use our interactive tool below to find out how much green space people have access to in their area, and how it compares to the rest of the country.


Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement Monday that people are allowed to mingle in parks and gardens with groups of up to six people was partially following what people were doing already.

Data from mobile phones show people have been returning to parks across the UK, and also across Europe, as weather improves and lockdown eases.

People have been returning to parks across the world

Stay-at-home requirements were eased in Italy on 4 May, which led to a flood of people returning to parks.

France eased restrictions on 1 May, and the UK eased up slightly on 13 May, allowing people to sit down in public places so long as they remain socially distanced.

Other countries have seen park attendance rise without major easing of lockdown – including Canada, Spain, and the US (although states there have individual rules and some have eased restrictions).

In some countries, people never really stopped going to parks.

Authorities in the Netherlands and Germany were not as strict as other countries about their citizens visiting local parks during lockdown, while Sweden has famously been avoiding placing many restrictions on people’s daily lives.

There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that access to green space has major benefits for public health.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Exeter found that spending time in the garden is linked to similar benefits for health and wellbeing as living in wealthy areas.

People with access to a private garden also had higher psychological wellbeing, and those with an outdoor space such as a yard were more likely to meet physical activity guidelines than those without access to outdoor space. 

Separate UK research has found that living with a regular view of a green space provides health benefits worth £300 per person per year.

Access is not shared equally, however, which has important implications for equality under lockdown, and the spread of disease.

Statistics from the UK show that one in eight households has no garden, making access to parks more important.

There is a geographic inequality here. Londoners, who have the least access to private gardens, are most likely to rely on their local park for green space, and have the best access to parks. 

However the high population in the capital means that on the whole, green space per person is lower – an issue for people living in densely populated cities everywhere.

There is also an occupational inequality.

Those on low pay – including in what are statistically classed as “semi-skilled” and “unskilled” manual occupations, casual workers and those who are unemployed – are almost three times as likely as those in managerial, administrative, professional occupations to be without a garden, meaning they rely more heavily on their local park.

Britain’s parks and fields are also at significant risk of development, according to new research by the Fields in Trust charity, which shows the number of people living further than a 10-minute walk from a public park rising by 5% over the next five years. That loss of green spaces is likely to impact disadvantaged communities the most, the researchers say.

This is borne out by looking at the parts of the country that have private gardens.

The least deprived areas have the largest gardens

Though the relationship is not crystal clear, it shows at the top end: Those living in the least deprived areas have the largest private green space.

Although the risk of catching coronavirus is lower outdoors, spending time in parks among other people is undoubtedly more risky when it comes to transmitting or catching the virus than spending time in your own outdoor space. 

Access to green space is therefore another example – along with the ability to work from home and death rates – of how the burden of the pandemic has not been equally shouldered by all.

Michael Goodier is a data reporter at New Statesman Media Group, and Josh Rayman is a graphics and data visualisation developer at New Statesman Media Group.